‘Firebird’ soars with new urgency in reimagined production at Mann [photos]

When the Philadelphia Orchestra presents “The Firebird” at the Mann Center in Fairmount Park Wednesday, the choreography will be performed by giant puppets designed in South Africa as part of a re-imagining of the classic ballet.

Igor Stravinsky based “The Firebird” on a Russian folk tale of a prince who defeats an evil wizard with the help of a mystical bird. It was an instant hit when it premiered in Paris in 1910.

For this performance at the Mann, puppeteer Janni Younge of Cape Town, South Africa, has staged the dance with a dragon puppet towering 16 feet high and unfurling a 40-foot wingspan.

“At first, I thought ‘The Firebird’ was great for puppetry,” said Younge, who directs the performance of puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company of Cape Town. “The puppet is innately metaphorical. It’s an inanimate object. It’s dead. It’s onstage being alive. So you are suspending a disbelief, entering into a proposal — here is a being you know isn’t there.”

In the performance, dancers introduce to the stage materials such as paper and sticks. Gradually, those materials merge to form puppets representing characters and symbols of the story, continuing to evolve into ever-larger creatures.

The metaphorical nature of the ballet allows it to absorb almost any interpretation. In Younge’s storyline, the evil wizard and the hopeful firebird battle to their mutual demise. Emerging from their ashes is that enormous dragon puppet, embodying the forces of both creation and destruction.

Younge is thinking about the current state of South Africa trying to find its post-apartheid future. The ideals of Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement have become domineering, she said.

“The ideal of a perfect society — where everything is worked out — is not the reality we are living in,” said Younge. “There is a tremendous amount of social injustice, and people not being heard, because there is this idea that now we are all OK. And we’re not.

“Hearing the destructive voices, hearing voices that are breaking and burning things — why are we forced into burning things? Because we’re not being heard.”

Last month, protesters burned tires and blocked roads, in response to the ruling African National Congress Party’s nomination of a mayoral candidate for the city of Pretoria. Since its globally celebrated defeat of white-minority rule in 1994, the ANC has faced mounting criticism.

Although Younge created this production of “Firebird” with the social and political conditions of South Africa in mind, she kept the interpretation loose enough to accommodate other perspectives.

“It’s not important that each member of the audience gets my meaning,” she said. “What’s more important is they find something evocative in it, that it says something to them emotionally, and they have the confidence to be OK with the experience they have inside my show.”

“The Firebird” will be performed once in Philadelphia before it goes on a national tour. The Philadelphia Orchestra will accompany the puppets again, at the end of the tour, during its annual residency in Saratoga Springs, New York.

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